Information and symptoms of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is a malignant tumour in one or both ovaries. Some cases of ovarian cancer may form in the fallopian tube and spread to the ovary. There are many types of ovarian cancer.

The three most common types are

  • Epithelial – starts in the fallopian tubes, on the surface of the ovary (epithelium) or in the peritoneum.
  • Germ cell – start in the egg-producing (germinal) cells.
  • Stromal cell – rare cancer that starts in the cells that produce the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone.

How common is ovarian cancer

Each year, about 280 Queensland women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The average age at diagnosis is 60. It is the eighth most common cancer in women in Queensland. Ovarian cancer is usually diagnosed in women over 50.

What are the risk factors

The causes of ovarian cancers are unknown, but the risk factors include:

  • Age – ovarian cancer is most common in women over 50 and in women who have stopped menstruating (have been through menopause), and the risk increases with age.
  • Genetic factors – up to 20% of serous ovarian cancers are linked to an inherited faulty gene, and a smaller proportion of the other types of ovarian cancer are also related to genetic faults.
  • Family history – having one or more close blood relatives diagnosed with ovarian, breast, bowel or uterine cancers, or having Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.
  • Reproductive history – women who have not had children or who had children over the age of 35 may be slightly more at risk.
  • Lifestyle factors – such as smoking and being overweight
  • Hormonal factors – including early puberty or late menopause, or using oestrogen-only hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for five years or more.

Most women who have these risk factors do not develop ovarian cancer.

What are the symptoms

In its early stages, ovarian cancer usually has no symptoms. This means it is typically diagnosed when the cancer is more advanced. If symptoms occur, they may include:

  • Pressure, pain or discomfort in the abdomen or pelvis.
  • Swollen or bloated abdomen
  • Appetite loss or feeling full quickly
  • Changes in toilet habits (e.g. constipation, diarrhoea, passing urine more often, increased flatulence).
  • Indigestion and nausea
  • Tiredness
  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain.
  • Changes in menstrual pattern or bleeding after menopause
  • Pain during sex.

If these symptoms are new for you, are severe or continue for more than a few weeks, keep a record of how often they occur and make an appointment with your general practitioner (GP). These symptoms can also occur in many other conditions and do not necessarily mean you have cancer, but it is best to have a check-up.

How is ovarian cancer diagnosed

There is currently no effective screening test for ovarian cancer. If your doctor suspects you have ovarian cancer, you may have some tests and scans. The only way to confirm a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is by taking a tissue sample (biopsy) and looking at cells under a microscope.

  • Physical examination – The doctor will check for any masses or lumps by feeling your abdomen and doing an internal vaginal examination.
  • CA125 blood test – to check for proteins produced by cancer cells.

Other tests include:

  • CT scan – uses x-ray beams to take pictures of the inside of your body.
  • MRI scan – uses magnetism and radio waves to build up very detailed cross-section pictures of the body.
  • PET Scan – highlights abnormal tissues in the body.
  • Pelvic Ultrasound – uses echoes from soundwaves to create a picture of your uterus and ovaries on a computer.
  • Colonoscopy – some women have a bowel examination to make sure that their symptoms are not caused by a bowel problem.

Some tests may be repeated during or after treatment to check how well the treatment is working. Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

What is the treatment

The treatment for ovarian cancer depends on what type of ovarian cancer you have, the stage of cancer, your general health and fitness, your doctors’ recommendations, and whether you wish to have children.

  • Epithelial – Surgery is the main treatment for all stages of epithelial ovarian cancer. The aim is to remove as much of the cancer as possible.
  • Germ cell – This is usually treated with surgery and/or chemotherapy.
  • Stromal cell – This is usually treated with surgery, sometimes followed by chemotherapy or targeted therapy.
  • Borderline tumours – usually treated with surgery only.

What is the prognosis

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for any doctor to predict the exact course of the disease in an individual person.

  • Epithelial cancer – the stage and grade of the cancer will influence the outcome. If epithelial ovarian cancer is diagnosed and treated before the cancer has spread outside the ovary, it has a good prognosis.
  • Germ cell and stromal cell tumours – these can usually be treated successfully.
  • Borderline tumour – this usually has a good prognosis.

Discussing your prognosis and thinking about the future can be challenging and stressful. It may help to talk with family and friends. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need more information or emotional support.

What support is available

Whether you have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.

Find out more about:

You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.


For more information on ovarian cancer please see these resources

If you are a patient, family or friend and would like to order a copy of the Understanding Ovarian Cancer booklet, please call Cancer Council 13 11 20